Sunday, 8 January 2017

Mælumsåa

Stig and I had in effect done a day and a half's climbing the previous day so were now due for an easier day. Both the energy levels and psych were a little depleted. The single pitch route called Mælumsåa sounded the ticket as it was even closer to our accommodation than Bjørndalsbekken, plus Anna and her partner Bjørn Erik had climbed it the day before so we knew it was in good condition. The trail to the route would also be bashed of course.

The route
Despite being just a single pitch it was almost a full rope length and felt like a proper route. The ice was an improvement on Bjørndalsbekken in that there was no wet ice low down, and brittle ice high up was less of an issue. I took an interesting line, initially up the right side, that was quite easy to begin with but then ramped up more steeply to 80+ degrees. It was probably the crux, although easier than yesterday's, maybe partly due to a few helpful hooks from the previous day's ascent. Also a few cheeky ice screw placements in existing holes. Small things to be grateful of when feeling not the freshest. The ice wasn't great for screws through the steep section but I had made sure to lace it a little more below this point to compensate. 

On the crux
(Photo by Stig Jarnes)
At mid-height the ice ran out on the right side and the the curtains to the immediate left looked too hard (for me) and poorly formed. This initiated an exciting delicate traverse leftwards along the base of the curtains until easier ground in the centre of the icefall could be reached. It was a traverse of 8m at a guess? Half ropes were a blessing, although I still needed to avoid screw placements around the middle of the traverse to keep them running roughly straight and free of drag. I managed to kick some decent steps into the soft ice beneath the curtains to compensate, and where the curtains separated low down to form small pillars, the shelf behind presented some solid axe placements. 

Once past the traverse the final ice to the top was of moderate difficulty. The line was around WI4, although a tad easier than yesterday's route due to the difficulties being less sustained. 

Stig near the top
We were back at the bags for 13:30 and lunch. Enough time remained to climb another line in theory but in practise the motivation levels had dropped due to flagging energy and psych. Climbing the same icefall again via a different line felt a little contrived as well. There looked to be a more sustained line up the middle, via a faint chimney, which looked fun but more of a line of strength. No doubt good training had I been game. As it stood, I was thinking more about a hot chocolate. Plus some cake to accompany. 

The descent
(Photo by Stig Jarnes)

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Bjørndalsbekken (WI4)

Ice conditions! The routes close to Sjoa had some of the best ice that I had climbed this season. It was far from perfect but much more homogeneous, fatter, and less damaged than the vast majority of routes to date. Bjørndalsbekken was just a short drive from where we were staying and so found its way to the top of our list. Little snow made the approach fairly easy in all respects.

The route from the approach
This was Stig's first proper ice route of the season (his only previous route this winter being 'Ut i vår Hage' on Skurvefjell, which had lacked any ice). The (optimistic) plan was that I would lead the easy first pitch to give him a chance to warm up and find his ice climbing skillz, and then it would be over to him to lead the steeper second pitch, which proved to be the crux.

The ice on the first pitch was rather wet and soft. Not ideal for monopoints, particularly if there were similar conditions on the steeper ground to come. The ice curtains above the pitch were running with water but the right side of the fall where we were headed looked much better. Fortunately the ice firmed up with height.

Me leading the first pitch
(Photo by Stig Jarnes)
The second pitch was actually pretty tough I thought, and at half height Stig stopped to make a belay due to a combination of rapidly depleting screws and rapidly increasing lactic acid in his calves. Once I had joined him at the belay the 80+ degree ice formations above, shaped like chanterelle mushrooms and full of air, looked rather intimating. No doubt the ice would provide lots of good hooks but it looked weak and susceptible to spontaneously fracturing underfoot. Plus quite likely no reliable screw placements. Around the corner to the right the ice looked similar angle but a tad more filled in and undoubtedly our best option.

Stig starting the second pitch
The weak ice above Stig's belay
My axes found their mark pretty easily but the footwork was hard because of the early stage ice formations didn't offer much in the way of compact ice to tap my crampon points into. Instead I relied on small natural ledges, which felt a little insecure at times. Screw placements were indifferent, often hitting pockets of air. Consequently I found myself closely lacing the section of ice through mistrust of what I had placed beforehand. I found the climbing pretty pumpy but under control. It wasn't dissipating through shaking out but it wasn't getting significantly worse either, so I just pressed on. 

Starting the crux ice
(Photo by Stig Jarnes)
At the top of the steep ice the conventional second belay in the ice-formed cave was too chandelier'ed and wet to take screws. At least I now had half a rope length with which to continue. I traversed easily leftwards along a sloping ledge towards the centre of the icefall, at least now able to place my screws more sparingly. A short steep icy corner allowed fairly easy bridging upwards to another big ledge that was ideal for a belay.

Stig joined me looking pretty exhausted so I gladly led on, following a rightward slanting weakness. After about half a rope length the natural weakness headed back leftwards, directly over my belayer. The ice was now dry but becoming more brittle with height, and so the sensible thing was to make another belay to spare my belayer from being showered with ice.

Start of our fourth pitch
(Photo by Stig Jarnes)
Stig near the top of our fourth pitch
Stig had another go at leading, however his calves were soon suffering and so he retreated back to the belay. After some minor faff to generally reorganise the ropes I was off on what would hopefully be the final pitch.

Stig at his high point on the fifth (final) pitch
The pitch was harder than expected. Partly because of the fading light but mainly because the ice high on the route had now become very hard and brittle. I was struggling to gain purchase with my front points whilst the other points were prone to skating on the flatter surfaces. What's more, anything remotely blank or convex promptly shattered in response to my axe strikes. Often I would need to give up and try somewhere else, and sometimes I would find myself getting out of shape as a consequence. Getting my axes to bite into the larger flat shelves was a particularly problem and led to repeated bashing. It made what should probably have been an easy final step into quite an undertaking. I even contemplated making a belay to give myself a break from the repeated hacking. I was pretty tired towards the top of pitch and found myself muttering words of encouragement to myself to keep me going.

It was largely dark by the time we were both at the top of the route. Undoubtedly the best routes I had climbed this winter with constant interest throughout of the route and some pretty sustained climbing beyond the first pitch. It's probably one of the best WI4s that I have climbed in Norway in fact (the guide gives the route WI3+/4 but it was definitely WI4 in current conditions). I'm usually not one for selfies at the top of routes but this one deserved one I thought.

Top of the route
The guide description suggested either an abalakov descent, which we didn't fancy due to the wet ice lower down, or abseiling from trees a little further south. Trees sounded the better option, however the trees beside the route looked sparse and we were little more cautious due to the lack of visibility. We completely overlooked the actual recommended trees to use in the guide's topo! Instead we followed the hillside for a few hundred metres further south to where the trees looked to thicker but in reality we couldn't see enough to really be certain. At a point that 'felt' right we started our abseils but after just 30m we met with an expansive overhanging cliff top with no clear bottom in the dark. The ropes were at least audibly hitting the ground and so I headed into the murk down a free hanging forty metre abseil to investigate. We met with slabby ice below the cliff, which meant an abalakov thread was needed to go any further. My 1kg heavier bodyweight meant that I got to go first. I continued down over another shorter overhang and onto a smaller easier angled neighbouring ice route to the one we had climbed.

At the bottom of the 40m cliff
Towards the end of the abseil I managed to reach a tree above the ice on its far bank. I thought trees would hasten matters but it was more the contrary. At every opportunity the ropes would catch on branches, meaning I spent most of my time untangling ropes and throwing them a matter of metres (generally into the next nearest branch) rather than actually abseiling. The slack angle of the hillside also discouraged the ropes from sliding anywhere but the regular short, severe drop-offs prevented us from simply down-climbing. It somehow took us about two and a half hours to make the full descent and in hindsight we should have just abseiled the route (or read the guide description properly and used the recommended trees, which would only have been three abseils to our bags. At least we were sharing the hut and so were grateful to have dinner on the table in time for our late return.

(A slightly blurry) view back towards our route from the abseils

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Mystery Ice on Såta

The previous day we had seen a worthwhile looking ice line on the shoulder of the east face of Såta. It was clearly visible from the pasture at the very end of the toll road beneath Skogshorn and looked an easy day out for New Year's Day.

Reaching it was a straightforward affair. Anna and I just followed the Skurvefjell path a short way to the small waterfall, and then branched left through the trees for a few hundred metres more until they thinned out. A short trudge up a slope brought us to beneath the route. The approach was shorter than it suggested from the parking area.

East face of Såta. The ice is just left of the centre of the photo. 
The route
The lower half of the route followed an attractive line of seapage before the route broadened higher up and the ice became fatter. The ice looked thin but not too steep, therefore so long as I found some sort of sporadic protection I anticipated I would be happy enough. We brought a small rock rack in case the ice was too thin to protect, which meant quite an ample weight on my harness. 

After leading Øvredalsbratta the previous day the first pitch, which looked the poorer of the two pitches, naturally fell to me. Gaining the initial ice step proved no easy task as the soft snow beneath it collapsed with ease, causing me to progressively dig myself into  a hole. Weak ice at the lowest extremities didn't help matters and made it hard for my to get crampon points high enough. Once I had found good high axe placements the only thing for it was to perform a sort of mini pull-up in order to get my feet to a point high enough where I could kick into good ice. 

Ice quality didn't really improve. Lots of thin ice, brittle ice, weak hanging curtains, soft snow, and newly formed 'collapsy' ice on top of soft snow. Not surprisingly a fair amount of debris fell down the route. Anna's belay was safely tucked behind a line of small trees, although occasional ice still managed to ping off their branches in random directions little like a pin ball machine. Another high foot manoeuvre left in order to mount another another partially melted curtain. More soft snow...

Protection was pretty terrible as well. A lot of thin or hollow ice that was poor for screws but a couple of trees lining the route to sling. No rock protection. Runners at times felt a long way below me but the climbing wasn't steep or sustained enough for any serious concern.

A short steep section breaking left led to my belay stance. With more confidence in my ice screws and less brittle ice to contend it would have been nice to have climbed this ice via a more sustained line. As it was I took the line of least resistance, gaining the steep section where at its most shortest. Partially dodging it really. A solid tree belay on a comfortable ledge at least. My pitch was a full 60m but we could probably have moved the initial belay up 10m (maybe at the expense of shelter), or made my first belay stance 10m lower (the large ledge looked more comfortable though). 

The ice on Anna's pitch was much more homogeneous and better quality, although the pitch was only short. It climbed the broad ice at the top of the route, beyond which lay a good tree belay a little further up the hill. 

Finale ice
Top of the route
The views from the top of the route were spectacular towards Skogshorn and its surroundings. It was worth doing the climb just for this vantage point. What's more we had been totally sheltered from the fairly strong northerly winds by the higher peaks of Nibbi et al.

I'd say it was a good climb but with the first pitch in poor condition due to the recent warm weather bouts. The last one being only two days prior. It's an aesthetic first pitch that I suspect is often fatter, given the amount of ice higher up the route. I've seen it formed early in the season so suspect it's probably best before too much snow arrives as some sections of the first pitch will become quickly buried. Give it a week or two more of dry cold weather and maybe the ice lower down will be better. The route is around WI3 and with a fairly short approach it was an easy day (we were abseiling the route by 1:30pm).

I've no idea if this is a first ascent. It's fairly obvious but I imagine it also spends many winters buried to some extent. I've not got around to emailing anybody yet. Any info welcome.

Two abseils in a plumb straight line from the top belay brought us to the base of the route. Maybe this will be the last route that I'll do in Hemsedal for a while. I've climbed a lot of routes in the area now and have spent a fair number of days in Hemsedal at the start of the season also. A lot of the routes remaining on my 'to do' list need mixed conditions to some degree, or are south facing ice routes and probably not in good condition right now. Better to chase conditions elsewhere and then return when there is a bigger carrot on offer.

View to Skogshorn and surrounding from the top of the route
Rappelling the route

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Øvredalsbratta (WI4)

It was around +7 degrees in the valley and +1 degree on the summits the previous day so Anna and I knew we needed to go as high as possible. We also knew from before Christmas that the valley ice was already in poor shape. With easterly winds forecast up to around 17m/s with possible snow flurries we expected the weather to feel Scottish. No point in dodging such weather given we planned to visit Scotland in just over a month. Øvredalen seemed the obvious choice due to the high elevation and hopefully some degree of shelter. On a very optimistic note, with the following day in mind, a late start would also allow us to check the minute potential for any mixed conditions developing. 

The rock on Skogshorn looked totally dry from the toll road with only the very tops of sheltered aspects showing any genuine sign of winter. At least there was no need for a pre-dawn start the following day on New Year's Day. The toll road was equally dry and we were able to easily park in the pasture at the very end of it.

A dry parking lot
My first visit to Øvredalen had via knee deep powder, so the approach this time around was like a walk in the park. There was a little pot holing to do places whilst in the trees but once the valley opened out the snow generally lessened, although was still a lot soft from the previously warm temperatures. The wind wasn't that bad either, particularly once in Øvredalen.

Not much snow on the approach
View towards Skurvefjell
Øvredalen
Øvredalsbratta was purely an ice climb in current condition, followed by an easy scramble to exit the route. The well defined channel of ice snaking down the rock looked to me the spitting image of the second pitch of Orion Face Direct on Ben Nevis, which naturally made me keen to lead it.

Øvredalsbratta (WI4)
Orion Face comparisons were quickly forgotten once the climbing was underway though. Much of the ice was brittle, although this had been the general theme for a few weeks now. Some of the ice was close to perfect though with my picks easily biting first time. Often when least expected, such as on blank vertical surfaces. It was a really interesting pitch with a fairly constant level of difficulty. Nearly a full 60m to my belay.

The main pitch of Øvredalsbratta
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
I hadn't bothered to bring rock gear, which made my belay a bit more challenging. Just a sling over a loose block, frozen in place but probably less than half my body weight. Plus a good seating position on an upwards slope with which to create some resistance, a bit like a bucket seat. Two feet pressing against some rocks in opposition (admittedly one of these was the frozen block but at least everything was acting in opposition). My axes planted in neve behind me. It actually all felt pretty solid.

My sling'ed belay block
Anna did a second pitch of sorts, which was more of an easy scramble to where we could gain a snowy ramp descent. I was amazed by how little snow was present in the upper part of Øvredalen.

The upper part of Øvredalen looking very dry
Our casual start meant no time for another route. Øvredalsrenna however looked completely different to when I had climbed it early in the season in November 2015. The short mixed chimney at the start now completely banked out with ice. A friend who climbed it the following day described the route as being "like butter, but no ice from halfway up the gully".

Øvredalsrenna
A pretty easy day all in all. I didn't anticipate visiting Øvredalen so late in the season but it's good to keep getting stuff ticked despite some pretty miserable conditions.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Birifeltet

Our day was as much about the climbing as it was about getting to the climbing. Morning plans were sabotaged by our car. The plan had been to drive to Birifeltet to break the journey home but after less than half an hour things started to go wrong.

Firstly a slushing noise coming from the back left wheel that sounded like rubbing snow, except it wasn't going away. Peering under the back of the car we noticed a loose piece of rusted metal on the inside of the wheel frame. We took the wheel off and removed it. Fortunately there looked to be nothing structurally wrong with the wheel so we continued on our way.

We found this behind the wheel
At least we would have done, were if not for a flat battery due to leaving the headlights on. We had no jump leads in the car and there was little sign of traffic. For the first half hour the only two cars that past us was the same car travelling in opposite directions, without jump leads. We gave it a little longer and then bit the bullet to call the breakdown company. Of course as soon as we did that a car stopped soon after.

By the time we reached Birifeltet there was only a couple of hours of daylight remaining. It was another cool looking gorge, although with less ice and atmosphere compared to Helvete. There was a lot of ice with no obvious lines but at the left of the crag we found a good looking short line directly beneath some lower-off bolts.

Birifeltet
It was Anna's turn to lead what was a fairly hard pitch around 4/4+. Firstly a steep wall and then a steep narrow pillar. The pillar in particular was quite technical due to its narrow size and weak ice either side, although the sketchiest part was mounting the shelf between the bolts and where the ice stopped abruptly. I had the 'joy' of reaching the bolts after Anna had abseiled from a couple of screws at the very top of the ice. It was best described as gravelly choss, which was covered in a layer of frost but seemed barely frozen. It reminded me instantly of chalk when at its most chossiest. I dug my points in as best I could then tried to move my crampons up the ice a little higher. To make things worse the thinning ice at the very top of the route had a tendency to fracture and chip away. A little high I now found a protruding block amongst the choss that seemed to not be loose and so with all four points trying to pull evenly as possible I rocked over the top of the route onto the shelf and threaded the bolts.

Anna leading the steep lower wall
Climbing the pillar
We climbed the line once more each on toprope, just to the top of the ice, for a bit more of a workout before pulling the ropes down and driving home. 

We did more short routes than I would have ideally liked over the previous week but that was dictated by the conditions. I think we did a good job overall to keep climbing in new places despite the mid-trip warm spell. At least we maintained a good level of difficulty when limited to single pitch, which wasn't a bad thing early season. Hopefully there will be some stable temperatures from this point forward to allow for some longer routes to be climbed.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Helvete, Espedalen

Espedalen proved to be a mixed bag with conditions. The longer routes in the area had been the main draw for me, however Sprenabekken was thin and full of holes, and the middle section of was running with water. Earl Grey was totally void of ice in its middle section. Skoroa looked the general right shape to be in condition but it was impossible to properly confirm whether this was actually the case due to the greater distance from the road. Given the poor condition of Sprenabekken and Earl Grey, a long walk-in for a closer look at Skoroa didn't really appeal.

Sprenabekken (WI4)
Earl Grey (WI3+/4)
The real surprise of the trip though was the half kilometre long gorge at Helvete, which was packed with ice along both its sides, creating a very atmospheric setting. At one point the gorge walls closed and became more bowl shaped, approaching the shape of a slot canyon.

A scene from a Ridley Scott movie
The online guide that we were using did not describe routes individually, so after a little exploration we just picked lines based on aesthetics and challenge. I was more drawn to the isolated lines on the north and east side, in particular some of the brownest ice I have seen anywhere. The broader sections of ice were of less interest to me as they lacked obvious lines and likely changed formation based on ice build-up.

Ice on the South side of the gorge
We started on the wall of brown ice that descended into the more enclosed part of the gorge, directly beside the staircase leading from the car park. It was steep in its lower half before the angle eased back. Its lower half was possibly the most brittle ice that I had ever climbed with some huge dinner plates resulting. At one section in particular I needed to down-climb one step and move to the left in order to flick off a thick, loose top layer of ice. Heavy enough to either knock me off or damage my ropes otherwise. Fortunately the brittle ice difficulties were offset by some small hooks from a previous ascent in recent days. A good WI4 line despite the ice conditions.  

Anna beneath the first route that we climbed
Me leading the brittle ice on the first route
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
Top of the steep ice on our first route
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
Anna had hit the wall today and so it was my lead again. Another brown icefall further west on the same side of the gorge grabbed my attention. The steep middle section had an obvious weakness towards the left hand side, via a faint chimney. Climbing this proved trickier than expected because the ice to the left was too chandelier'ed and weak to use my left crampon on. As a consequence I was a little bit cramped, or out of shape, as I worked my way up the steep section. Again the ice was brittle, which slowed the progression. It was the steepest route of the day, about WI4+, and definitely the best route that we did in the gorge. Anna on second had the steepness combined with hot aches to contend with, so I got off easy.

Hot aches!
Anna abseiling from the second route that we climbed
There was time for one more route before sunset. Another aesthetic line further west was the obvious choice and looked not too difficult. The easier angle and lack of concave features meant more dinner plating though and a stupid number of axe swings. At least the ice was predictable in so far as it either exploded or didn't. Not much middle ground. The footwork was also not too tiring as the amount of hacked ice had created some moderate sized steps. Probably around WI3+ but I suspect it eases to WI3 with greater ice build-up. On second, every axe strike of Anna's echoed off the opposite wall.

Our third route
More brittle ice hacking
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)
With so much ice in the gorge it would have been easy to have visited the following day as well, however I think we did the best lines in current conditions. Apart from what we climbed, there were also some nice looking pillars but they looked too wet and fissured to contemplate leading. Helvete + one of the longer routes seems a good pairing for when I'm next in the area though.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Dammen, Valdres

I bought an ice cream the previous day as a silent protest towards the latest bout of warm weather. Hemsedal was looking in spring condition with little snow in valley. Even the ski pistes were developing green patches. It was time to leave. If we had brought our rock shoes with us then I think would have managed a rock route on Skogshorn or Skurvefjell no problem. 

Our plan was to relocate to Espedalen, where over last month the warm spells looked to have been more moderate, although the latest one looked have been just as bad. The day's strategy was to drive in that direction until something wintry presented on route. Then hopefully we would get some climbing done, although we anticipated needing to lower the levels of ambition. 

Hydnefossen looked in terrible shape as we left Hemsedal. Midtlinja had totally collapsed and was now running water, and routes further left were in no better shape. It was evidence of just how destructive the latest wave of warm temperatures at higher altitudes had been. It was also further confirmation that we were making the right decision with relocating. 

Hydnefossen in terrible condition

Fortunately there was a lot more snow cover as we dipped into Valdres. Along the E16 tree branches were still white with frost and temperatures seemed to be keeping to below zero. Unfortunately a thick fog was limiting our ability to properly assess conditions but around Bagn in particular it seemed generally cold and stable. Furthermore the small blobs of ice along the road looked dry and compact. 

Out of curiosity we made a short detour to check out Stavedalen. Temperatures climbed from -3 in the valley to +3 as we climbed through the band of cloud and popped out into clear sunny skies above. The south facing ice at Stavedalen was not surprisingly in poor shape but at least it gave me a reference point of conditions for when planning another visit this winter. Clearly there was no need to rush back in any great hurry.

Stavedalen in lean condition

We hadn't been able to see the ice routes around the dam near Bagn from the E16 due to fog but it seemed a definite cold hole and worth further investigation.

We didn't fancy taking our car partway down the 1km approach road to the barrier due to the road's moderate steepness and snow/ice cover. Instead we parked in a lay-by a few hundred metres down the road.

The way to the ice routes followed a ploughed track for 2km beyond the barrier that was easy on foot. The first small icefall named the 'liten foss ved kraftlinje' in the online Valdres guide looked to be in condition but too short to be worth stopping for. Further along the track another route called 'Gul fossen' looked in good nick, as did another fall a little further along. We were keen to continue to the tallest route in the area known at 'Dammen' though, which sounded the most impressive. 

Gul Foss (WI3)
Ice between Gul foss and Dammen

The first glance that we got of Dammen suggested the start was too chandelier'ed and steep to contemplate. The waterfall was much broader than I had expected though and with a little more exploration around its base we found a climbable line up the left hand side.

Dammen. We climbed the ice at the far left.

The ice was wet but easy to climb and fine to protect. Harder than the quoted grade WI3 in current conditions but probably still only WI3+, as there were some good resting points. Maybe WI4 if it were Rjukan! There was still some wet chandeliers to deal with but they be easily skirted. My first pitch was only 30m to the top of the steep section but an obvious isolated tree was the logical place to make a belay.
First pitch of Dammen
(Photo by Anna Kennedy)

The steepness on the second pitch slackened off but ice became more of an unknown quantity. Hollow sounding ice and plenty of silent water running behind it encouraged Anna to stick to the right edge of the fall where the ice seemed thicker.

Anna leading the second pitch

Two easy abs from trees brought us back to the base of the route, capping a good day's climbing. Given the warm weather the previous days we found pretty decent ice conditions, although we had fully expected to have to drop a grade in order to get something done. The area seemed a good place generally to head for when searching for trapped cold air during rapid warming  so can see me making a return trip at some point.